The View

Wrestling with a tidal wave of refugees from Syria or anywhere else

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 September, 2015, 10:05am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 September, 2015, 10:05am

Almost everyone in Hong Kong is a migrant seeking a better life. Our migrants walked across Lowu Bridge, climbed over the border hills, hid in trucks, or dodged shark attacks while swimming across Mirs Bay.

We took in dehydrated Vietnamese refugees on sinking boats, when a number of countries refused them. Less dramatically, most of us just flew in. As the writer Nuri Vittachi says, “I’m a classic HK success story: I arrived with $19 in my pocket and now I owe $4 million to Hang Seng Bank!”

The mass migration from Syria to Germany through many controlled borders is unparalleled in modern times. There are four million refugees outside Syria’s borders and they are travelling to Germany at a rate of 800,000 a year. At least 18,000 migrants arrived last weekend. Tens of thousands are still flowing across the Mediterranean from Africa. We know from Hong Kong’s experience that the more who ‘touch base’; the more will come.

Most of these migrants feel that they would just be better off in a rich, well-governed country. They seek life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Most are fit young men whose only danger comes from climbing through razor wire or surviving a sea crossing in an open boat. They may have ‘acquired’ money from friends, families and fools to pay the snakeheads. They may include opportunistic freeloaders who merge into the throngs of migrating families.

We want to give these people the chance of a lifetime but not another chance in a lifetime. Is it fair to let them jump the queue? Already Britain and Australia have agreed to fractionally increase their immigration quotas, rewarding legitimate immigrants who apply through the proper channels by taking people only from the camps outside Syria.

We want migrants young enough to integrate and to work hard for low money. We don’t like it when they live in ghettos, when they speak in a strange language. They have different foods and smells. Goodness, they might be a different colour. We don’t want their cultural values (like restricting the rights of women) in our country.

Migrants have sharp business practices too, learned from having had nothing. They exploit the Western universal welfare state to support big families and demand that unproductive elderly relatives join them. Any discussion of migration has racial overtones; immigrants from Asia and Europe use US welfare a lot less than those from Hispanic America and the Caribbean.

All of this is very positive for economic growth.

The huge American economy was built on mass migration. They fled war, famine, disease, poverty, or just a lack of opportunity in the Old Country, for a glimpse through the mist, of the Statue of Liberty.

Finding an underclass of cheap labour to wash our shirts, clean our toilets, and sweep the streets, is a dream scenario for a mature economy. That’s why we have maids in Hong Kong. The reunification of Germany in 1990 boosted a sluggish Western economy with a pool of cheap undemanding labour. A generation later, Germany’s falling birthrate calls for another boost from cheap migrants. One can only imagine the economic powerhouse that would be a united Korea.

Germany’s first bill for migrant support is HK$50 billion (€6 billion) – an unexpected injection of liquidity. Putting young, desperate and hungry people to work gives a big boost to the supply side of the economy. The combination of humanity and economics in Hong Kong created a similar economic miracle.

The challenge is to allow increased legal immigration while preserving the culture of the host nation. Citizens may have to have a different status such as those we have for permanent and ordinary residents in Hong Kong. The US regulates its immigration process tightly to inspire migrants to follow American culture, tradition and values.

Only the ineffectual United Nations can deal with unapproved migration on this scale. Mass migration that built America, Australia and Canada is not an option today and the Arab states and Russia (both heavily engaged in Syria) are dodging the bullet. The solution is to restore order and good governance in the source countries but bombing the bad guys hasn’t worked.

Perhaps a UN territory annexed from a failed state, like Libya or Syria, could develop a sustainable economy – “the Israel option”, but this time a Muslim one.

Our aspirations – if only for the sake of humanity - are inscribed on the Stature of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these; the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door"


Richard Harris is chief executive of Port Shelter Investment Management